Rio Report: Why You Need to Start Taking Race Walking Seriously | News, Scores, Highlights, Stats, and Rumors

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OLYMPIC PARK, RIO DE JANEIRO — Upon first glance, race walking is a fairly ridiculous prospect. It consists of grown men and women walking as fast as they can, but they do not move with the gait of someone rushing to catch a bus. Their awkward shining hips look as if they have baked beans in their underwear.

All too often, race walking is lumped together with trampolining and dressage in the category of Olympic sports with questionable merit. In 2000, long-time NBC commentator Bob Costas said race walking is “like having a contest to see who can whisper the loudest,” per Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe.

The sport has its origins in the Victorian practice of pedestrianism, where it was popular to bet on gentlemen walking the length and breadth of Britain.

It soon made its way to the United States, where competitive walking matches drew huge crowds. NPR notes that competitors would walk for six days straight in front of large crowds at arenas like Madison Square Garden. They were only allowed to walk from Monday to Saturday, as public amusements were prohibited on Sundays.

Thanks to its popularity in the late nineteenth century, race walking was introduced to the Olympic program for the 1908 Games in London. Fans were not treated to six-day extravaganzas—there were slightly more civilized 3,500-meter and 10-mile distances.

Today, there are 20-kilometer and 50-kilometer events. The former was introduced in 1956 and the latter in 1932. A women’s event was first added at Barcelona in 1992.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 19: Kimberly Garcia of Peru cools off as she competes in the Women's 20km Walk final on Day 14 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Pontal on August 19, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

There are two main rules that must be adhered to: at least one foot must be in contact with the floor at all times (to differentiate it from running), and the supporting leg must straighten upon contact with the floor and stay straight until the body has passed over it.

This is why race walkers swing their hips like Mick Jagger—anyone caught straying from the rules will be disqualified by the judges.

And disqualifications are frequent. At the 2000 Olympics, Australian race-walker Jane Saville was cruelly denied gold just 100 meters from the finish line of the 20-kilometer event for illegal technique. At the same games, Mexican walker Bernard Segura had his 20-kilometer gold medal stripped 11 minutes after crossing the line, while being congratulated by his country’s president on the phone.

Obviously, race walking is a serious business, and its participants are much greater athletes than you might expect.

The winning men’s time in the 50-kilometer race in Rio was Matej Toth’s 3.40:58. That represents an average speed of 8.45 miles per hour for 31 miles. Runners World notes that the average walking speed is between two and four miles per hour.

French walker Yohann Diniz—who is the world-record holder for the 50-kilometer distance—pushed himself so hard in Rio that he collapsed shortly after suffering some embarrassing bowel issues.

In the 20-kilometer men’s race, China’s Zhen Wang took gold with a time of 1.19:14. The world record for running the same distance is the 55:21 that African road runner Zersenay Tadese ran in 2010.

So, Wang was less than 24 minutes slower than the record holder running at full pace, despite being constrained by keeping a foot on the floor at all times.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 19: Panayiota Tsinopoulou of Greece competes in the Women's 20km Walk final on Day 14 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Pontal on August 19, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

In 1984, the International Journal of Sports published a study comparing the physical efforts of runners and race walkers (via inverse.com). It found that athletes in each sport reached the same VO2 (oxygen consumption) levels at a speed of five miles per hour.

Hence, at that speed, the effort is the same. Those with experience with both race walking and running will frequently claim that the former is more difficult. On one running forum, a user notes that her shins and ankles muscles are taxed significantly more by a 10-kilometer race walk than a 10-kilometer run.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 19: Jorge Armando Ruiz of Colombia (l) competes on Day 14 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Pontal on August 19, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

The difficulty appears to lie in the unnatural gait that is necessary for maximum race walking speed. The hips usually rotate at around four degrees, but biomechanics research suggests race walkers must rotate at 20 degrees to lengthen their strides. Furthermore, the arms must swing in a seemingly exaggerated fashion to encourage greater cadence, and the feet should strike in a straight line—as if you are walking an imaginary tightrope.

The correct technique is very difficult to master. But once it has been perfected, it can be used to beat marathon runners at their own game.

Such are the fine margins in race walking that the sport has been affected by the same kind of doping scandals that have rocked other Olympic disciplines. Russian walker Sergey Kirdyapkin was stripped of the gold medal he won at the 50-kilometer distance at the 2012 Games in the recent spate of action by the World Anti-Doping Agency. China’s Lui Hong and Italy’s Alex Schwarzer have both served bans for breaching doping regulations.

China's Liu Hong celebrates winning the Women's 20km Race Walk during the athletics event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Pontal in Rio de Janeiro on August 19, 2016. / AFP / Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

JEWEL SAMAD/Getty Images

When race walking next appears on your television, it may still encourage a tweet. But clearly, this Olympic discipline is no stroll in the park.